There is a line in Alberta that runs from Joni Mitchell to David Bowie. It is the creation of Jean Grand-Maître, who is retiring this spring as artistic director of Alberta Ballet. Since arriving from his native Quebec 20 years ago, he’s brought international attention to the company with a series of ballets danced to the music of Mitchell, Elton John, Sarah McLachlan, k.d. lang, The Tragically Hip and Gordon Lightfoot. This week, he will premiere one more of what he calls his portrait ballets: Phi, danced to songs by David Bowie.
“Taking an art form from the courts of France and bringing it to the Canadian Prairies, and making it relevant, is not all that easy,” says Grand-Maître, 58. “I was very fortunate that I came here at a time when people really wanted to discover new things.”
Grand-Maître has choreographed many other works, of course, but he has become known for these pop ballets. If anyone in the dance world has ever looked down their nose at his project, Grand-Maître’s response is that pop music should not be disregarded.
“Joni Mitchell is as important to Canadian culture as Glenn Gould or Maureen Forrester,” he says. For each ballet, the story came after long discussions with – or deep studies into – the musicians. “It’s really about going to each singer and capturing something about them that could only be expressed through dance,” says Grand-Maître, who was named to the Order of Canada in 2018.
It all started with his Joni Mitchell ballet, The Fiddle and The Drum.
“Joni taught me how to do it,” he says. “She taught me how to understand songs and the groove and the accompaniment and the social, psychological, philosophical context of songs and their history.”
In 2000, Grand-Maître was feeling a little burned out, after choreographing for companies in Canada and Europe. He was on a year-long sabbatical in Rome, thinking about what was next.
When the position opened up at Alberta Ballet, Grand-Maître felt it was ideal – 26 dancers, a booming economy. He started in 2002.
“It was carte blanche – a blank page when it came to audiences,” says Grand-Maître. “I felt like … I was the right person to give this company a more Canadian identity.”
For Alberta Ballet’s 40th anniversary in 2006, Grand-Maître was looking to do something big. The dance writer Michael Crabb suggested a ballet set to music by Mitchell, who was born in Fort Macleod, Alta. Grand-Maître figured it was a long shot, but he wrote to her agent and Mitchell agreed to meet.
He flew to Los Angeles. He waited for her on the sidewalk outside a restaurant as her car pulled up.
“She was looking at me and I felt like I was looking at another Canadian,” he recalls. “I could see in her the Canadian humour, her politeness. She was extremely kind right away and made me feel very welcome.”
The dinner lasted six hours. Later, at her home, they talked about music and philosophy late into the night. The conversation continued over months and years.
“We spent, I would say, hundreds and hundreds of hours together listening to her music, trying to figure out which songs work well in a sequence. I saw a totally dedicated artist who … immerses herself in creative thinking until about five in the morning, if you can keep up.”
She was smart, funny, self-critical, almost scientific in how she analyzes the music she has created. “It was a profound time of philosophical talk, like I’ve never had in my life,” he says.
The timing was also good for him professionally. He was finding that when running a company, financial concerns can influence artistic vision.
“And when Joni showed up, she rang my bell again: ‘No, no, no, no, no – What do you want to say and how do you want to say it?’” he recalls. “It brought me back to why I created ballets in the first place and why I wanted to direct the ballet company, which was to risk and be relevant.”
Mitchell says working with Grand-Maître was one of the most enjoyable experiences of her career. “He’s a beautiful choreographer and a beautiful human being,” she recorded in a voice message for him, for an upcoming tribute.
The Fiddle and the Drum – what Grand-Maître calls a simple ballet that serves as a cry for the environment and a protest against war – had its world premiere in 2007 and was re-mounted at the Cultural Olympiad leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “It was such a success on all levels that we decided we should pursue this series,” he says. “Joni Mitchell’s pedigree, of course, opened every door.”
Including a big one: When Elton John saw a taped version of the show, it led to Grand-Maître’s next collaboration, Love Lies Bleeding, which had its world premiere in 2010.
Grand-Maître also choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where he got to know McLachlan and lang.
When Grand-Maître asked McLachlan about making a ballet to her music, “it was an instant yes,” she said in a 2011 interview. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy had its world premiere that spring. Grand-Maître’s connection with lang then led to Balletlujah!, a love story between two women set in the Canadian Prairies, which had its world premiere in 2013.
Our Canada, which Grand-Maître set to 22 songs by Lightfoot, premiered in 2017 to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation. It was an ambitious ballet with 90 dancers.
At the same time, Grand-Maître was also working on All of Us, a Tragically Hip ballet, which he began in 2016, the year the band announced that lead singer Gord Downie had terminal brain cancer. Although Grand-Maître was also offered the rights to make a ballet to John Lennon’s music that year, he stuck with the Hip.
When Downie died in 2017, Grand-Maître was still creating All of Us. He says listening to Downie’s voice after that point became a different experience, like he was “singing to me from the otherworld.”
Hip guitarist Rob Baker came out to Alberta to see the premiere in 2018. “He whispered in my ear, ‘Gord would have loved this,’” recalls Grand-Maître.
“The Hip were so honoured and grateful,” Baker told The Globe, by e-mail. “It was gratifying and thrilling, and a bit surreal to hear our music repurposed for ballet and to see the story it inspired,” Baker added.
With his retirement looming, Grand-Maître wanted to do one more portrait ballet.
He contacted the Bowie estate with the help of Beau Nelson, the Lethbridge-born make-up artist to the stars, who works with Iman, Bowie’s widow. It was a yes, with a caveat: “The Bowie estate didn’t want it to be about David Bowie in any way, shape or form,” Grand-Maître says. “It couldn’t be Ziggy Stardust, it couldn’t be the White Duke, it couldn’t be about any of those characters and it couldn’t be about his life.”
The condition was actually a relief. “Because there’s no way I could capture David Bowie. It’s just too eclectic and immense, that career.”
Phi, like Love Lies Bleeding, addresses addiction, but in this case, addiction to technology. In the first act, the audience is plunged into a virtual world. While initially it’s exciting, this kind of existence soon becomes empty. In the second act, the ballet travels to a natural paradise where people have escaped tech overload.
Grand-Maître feels Bowie’s music fits with this theme. “A lot of his lyrics were about the decrepit society; a bad ending to this human experience. And how we had to wake up. He was quite a prophet.”
After this season, Grand-Maître will return to nature, like his Phi protagonist. He is moving back to Gatineau, where he plans to buy a little boat and take a break.
“It’s been a privilege. And I will miss the smell of sweat and rosin and those dancers’ puppy eyes looking at you,” he says. “But I won’t miss … the administrative part of this job. Twenty years of trying to keep an arts organization alive is exhausting.”
Phi runs March 10-19 in Calgary and March 31-April 2 in Edmonton.
Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.